A Place of Refuge
by Grace Miller
March 1671 Eggiwil, Switzerland
The early morning fog hung like a wet cold blanket around the Shank’s farm. Christian hurried along the steep gravel path towards the house. His foot skidded and the milk in his pail sloshed over the edges of the bucket. “Really?” His little brother Peter muttered. “Like we didn’t need that milk.”
“Like we don’t need a lot of things,” Christian snarled back.
This morning Uncle Abraham had run up the mountain side to warn Father that the police were in town again. Christian winced, trying to forget the horrible story of his great uncle’s martyrdom and the fear that made his heart race when he thought of the danger for his own Father. Yesterday Hannah Brubaker had tearfully told mother of Bishop Han’s imprisonment, and the torture methods she heard they were using on him. Last week his best friend Emmanuel Brenneman had gone without saying goodbye. The police had found his father and had taken their family to the border and ordered them to leave and never return or they would be killed.
Father’s firm voice brought him back to the real world. Christian paused at the cabin door. He held Peter back. When Father used that voice something was really wrong.
“They’ve taken Uncle Benjiman and the other town officials to jail, Mary. They are there because of us. How can we let them be tortured because they will not tell where we are? We must leave here as soon as possible.”
Christian knew well that their friends in town always blew the ram horn when police appeared. That gave his family enough time to hide in the mountain before they searched the place. Now the town people must have been arrested for this.
Mother’s voice was anxious. “ Michael, how can we possibly do that? Leave our homeland and my sisters, never to see them again? It’s so cold. Anna is so weak. Where will we find money for this? We are paying every penny in tax."
"You're right, we have no money. But Aaron said the Dutch Mennonites are providing for and helping our people settle in war torn Ibersheim."
Christian winced at Mother's cry. Father's voice softened and broke. "I'm sorry, my dear Mary. It will be so hard for all of us. To leave behind all we've known and all of our family. To go to a place we don’t know.” His voice trailed off into a whisper.
Christian's mind whirled. “Would they really leave?” His fist clenched. It seemed on every side of them was a huge unmovable rock of suffering, heartache, and danger. “God in Heaven,” Christian whispered, “Who will help us? Where can we find a safe refuge?”
March 1716 Ibersheim, Germany
Benjiman turned over on the cot. He pretended be sleeping. The makeshift cabin was chilly. His grandfather, father, and older brother huddled around the fire as they talked in low voices.
He looked up at his grandfather. How strong he was, and yet how tired his face looked.
Grandfather Christian blinked back his tears. “I will stay here. But you must take your take your little ones and go. My father and I and you, my son, fled here 46 years ago. Life was very hard for us. We came with nothing, so full of heartbreak for what we had left behind. The Dutch helped us so much in those early days. Sometimes there were glimmers of hope. But now it seems those to have been extinguished. Since the farm was taken from us, we have had so little to give the children. Yesterday Christopher Brubaker told me they are raising the taxes again for anyone not willing to join the army. The Dutch Mennonites have so graciously offered to pay your way across the ocean. William Penn is extending to you young and able bodied something we have not had in hundreds of years: a place to serve our Christ in the way we must, and not be persecuted and oppressed for it. I want that for you all. Send me a letter when you arrive there. I want to die knowing you have found freedom for my children.”
Benjiman looked at Mother. She sat rocking the baby in the corner of the room. Henry could see through the shadows, the worry etched on her beautiful face. A tear slipped down her cheek and fell onto Sara’s tiny face. Mother wiped it away, but soon there were more. Henry thought about the large black ocean he had heard her whispering to Father about. He shivered and pulled the blankets up farther. Would they die? How could they leave Grandfather? Would God go with them to America? Was there enough food in Penn’s land? Where would they find a safe home?
March 1718 Germantown, Pennsylvania
Benjiman stood in the doorway looking across the field as the sun set over their farm. Behind him Mother rocked his new nephew Micheal. Benjiman knew when she sang about heaven she was thinking of little Sara whose body she had buried beneath the angry waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Her new grand baby Micheal and her own little cabin had brought hope back to Mother’s eyes. In this new land, Father had begun to plow more furrows in the field than in his brow. Benji remembered how the man in the Governor’s office in Philadelphia had heartily shaken Father’s hand and had welcomed their family to this new land. The Groff’s made room in their cabin for the Shanks. Henry thought about brother John’s strange words as Father thanked them for the shelter and food. “ Upon my conscience I could do no other,” he had simply said, “If you have done it unto the least of these my brethren ye have done it to me.” The Clemens’ gave Father work and paid him with a little land to build a cabin. The Bruckholders, Brubakers, and Brennemans met with them on Sunday. They all had worshiped in freedom. Mother was still singing to Micheal of heaven, where their eternal refuge would be. Until then, Micheal thanked the Almighty God for coming with them here to a refuge and a new home in America.
March 2015 Damascus, Syria
The air was thick with dust as Aaban hurried between the stacks of rubble. Surely he could get home before they started bombing again! His foot caught on a jagged edge. The water in his jug spewed out on to the dry concrete. “As if I didn’t need that.” He muttered to himself. As if they didn’t need so many things. A doctor for Mama and baby Amena. Food. Water. A shelter from the bombing. He shuddered. Death seemed to be knocking at their door.
Inside he could hear Papa. “We must flee. Europe or America is our only option. If we stay we will be killed.”
“ Hayyam, we cannot go!” Mother cried. “Amena will not live! My leg is still unusable. Can we leave Muhammed to rot in prison? There are so many guns and bombs along the way.”
March 2018 Lesvos, Greece
Aaban rolled over. The cold soaked through his mattress and and seemed to be freezing his bones. Outside the tent he heard a group of men still rioting. His father was out in the darkness somewhere with them. Inside his mother tossed and murmured “Amena, my angel, Muhammad, Amena,” over and over again. Amena had died several days into their flight. They had buried her small bony form beneath the sand. Only Allah knew what had become of her. Mama’s injury from the bombing had only seemed to get worse. The loss of her homeland, her oldest son Muhammad still behind bars in Syria, and now her dear baby’s death had made her soul sick. These tents seemed to stifle her hope. Papa too had become anxious. Usama pulled the dirty blanket up over his head in desperate attempt to keep out the cold and
fear. Would they be stuck here forever or be forced back into Syria to die? “Allah,” Usama whispered into the darkness. “ Allah, please, help us! Where can we find a refuge and a home?”
March 2018 Stuarts Draft, Virginia
Christian Shank’s great x8 granddaughter sat at the table eating her breakfast. Her husband had brought her coffee in bed earlier that morning, and she sipped on the luxury of her great grandfather’s choices and tears. So easily taking in the generous offerings from those who had helped the Shanks on their long journey to a free and welcoming land. She and her husband planned to be at their great uncle’s home for a delicious lunch after freely meeting for Sunday morning worship with the Troyers and Hershbergers. They had no fear of bombs and gun men in traveling the open roads of Augusta County. Her father-in-law was returning from prison on Tuesday. He had been treated fairly, and could return to them in joy and safety. Death, pain, and heartache seemed distant on this spring morning. She had a safe home and a eternal refuge in mind.
I am the granddaughter. I wonder what Christian would say to me this morning. I wonder what he would respond if he knew of the confinement and fear of Aaban. I wonder what he would say if he saw the newly remodeled, spacious house with two bedrooms and a large living area I am moving into in a few weeks. The money in our bank account that could buy much more than bread. The plane I could jump on that would have me in Lesvos in a day. The two towns both thirty minutes away that holds some of the largest refugee communities in Virginia. And most of all the hope I hold and harbor here in a land of peace. I wonder if he wouldn’t open his Bible and read “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” I think his conscience could do no other.